Two Sides

Two Sides

Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.


The explosion hits just as our omelets arrive. The air shakes and conversation is brought to a stunned halt by the forceful sonic jolt. Two blocks away a small convoy of US Humvees has been attacked by a remote activated bomb, known in military vernacular as an “improvised explosive device.” Plastered into a narrow cement traffic median, the IED knocked out the windshields of two Humvees, badly wounded an Iraqi translator, killed an unlucky bystander and wounded several others with shrapnel and concrete.

The next day is New Year’s Eve, and the cold night sky is crisscrossed with the gently arcing tracer rounds from bursts of celebratory gunfire. Below, the city is calm but tense. Everyone waits for “something big.” It comes as a huge explosion with a dense angry core and wide rumbling echo. Following the path of police cars and an ambulance, several colleagues and I reach the smoldering remains of the upscale Nabil restaurant just as the first medics unload.

A car bomb has killed eight and wounded thirty-five. The scene is Armageddon in miniature. Illuminated by orange flame, the surrounding streets are strewn with debris: twisted metal, broken glass, part of a tweed jacket, a steering rod, half a human foot with toes.

Welcome to the new Baghdad, and to the vexing little war that now grips central Iraq. After a month of traveling to many of the so-called Sunni Triangle’s hot spots, seeing the fighting firsthand and spending time with both the resistance and the US military, I am left with the impression that this is a war that will neither end soon nor dramatically escalate. Instead, the conflict seems to have settled into a lopsided and contradiction-fraught stalemate.

On the one hand, aggressive new counterinsurgency tactics–including high-tech surveillance, precision artillery, constant raids, mass detention and the fencing off of whole villages–are doing serious damage to the armed underground. But these same tactics also humiliate and enrage many otherwise pro-US Iraqis, possibly expanding the pool of potential recruits for the guerrillas.

Meanwhile, the highly decentralized and secretive resistance has enough popular support and equipment to continue reproducing itself for some time to come. But the insurgency lacks the ideological coherence or organization it would need to grow into a more formidable force. And its tactics, like the Americans’, though at times effective, alienate many war-weary Iraqis.

The Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya is resistance country. The graffiti in this heavily Baathist and Sunni area strikes a defiant posture: “Saddam, in our souls and with our lives we will sacrifice for you!” Or, “God protect and guide the hand of al mujahedeen.”

The US military considers Adhamiya one of the city’s most dangerous sectors. American patrols are regularly attacked here. Two Time journalists were badly wounded by a December 10 grenade attack in Adhamiya, and when Saddam was captured three days later, the neighborhood’s streets exploded in spontaneous protest.

In Adhamiya I meet Abu Hassan, a former army captain who now imports machinery and funds resistance “operations.” He says he might introduce me to some of the fighters.

At our first meeting one of his sons shows up with a pistol. The young man empties the gun’s chambers into his palm and shows me the flat-tipped and highly destructive dumdum bullets. Abu Hassan warns me to be completely honest about my identity and tells me to bring copies of the books I’ve written. “Otherwise some people might think you are CIA,” he says with a smile.

Next he introduces me to a well-dressed man who speaks English but won’t give his name. The man says he’s a former general in the Iraqi Army. Over little glasses of strong sweet tea, he holds forth with a torrent of virulently anti-Shiite, hard-core Sunni Baathism.

“The Shia know nothing! The Sunni must govern Iraq,” growls the ex-general. But his main grievance is America. “We could not fight their weapons, they bombed us from the sky. The Iraqi Army was very strong, very important. It was very bad when America destroyed it!” The former general is on the edge of the couch, gesticulating, driving home his points with an intense, contained rage. Behind him on a TV screen, a black-and-white Cary Grant chatters away in silence.

For the next meeting, I am given simple instructions: Go to a certain street corner and wait. Someone in a car will pick me up. When the car arrives it is Abu Hassan. He’s tense and again warns of the dangers. “If anything goes wrong they will find your hotel and kill you.”

By now it is night, and the electricity is out. After a circuitous drive through the dark city we arrive in the cramped and muddy Adhamiya souk; its old streets, crowded with stalls, shops and garbage, are too narrow for US Humvees to enter. There we pick up a man whose face is wrapped in a kaffiyeh and keep driving.

The man, in his late 40s, says he was a professional soldier and that he now runs a team of resistance fighters that has launched many operations. He says he is fighting because the war shamed and destroyed a once proud army and because the occupation is abusing and humiliating Iraqis and Islam. The goal of his team, which is made up of “less than twenty” local men, is to “repel the invaders and restore sovereignty.”

Does his cell have a name, or is it part of any larger group? He pauses as the car lurches around a corner and then snaps, “We are al mujahedeen,” using the general term for holy warriors. “Elsewhere the fighters are called Mohamed’s Army. But the names do not matter. We are all fighting for our country.” He adds that “our leaders have contact with Saddam’s Fedayeen,” referring to the old regime’s paramilitary terror squads and suicide fighters.

He claims that his team, along with one from al Quds and one from Ramadi, were responsible for recent attacks in Karbala, and that contrary to press reports, no car bombs were used. “Some of our RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and small Katyusha rockets hit cars with gas in them and they exploded.”

He also claims that the Iraqi resistance had nothing to do with the Nabil restaurant bombing. “We do not kill Iraqis, unless they are military interpreters or spies.” And for these “traitors,” his team maintains a “blacklist” of names, several of which have already been “crossed off”–that is, assassinated. To bolster his claim about not hurting Iraqis, he points out sites around Adhamiya where there have clearly been IED explosions. “See, there are no shops here, the roads are wide.”

It would be very difficult to prove or disprove this masked man’s assertions, short of watching him in action. But the man’s apparent skittishness, the ubiquitous but discreetly stashed pistols and the grave risk to any Iraqi who would pretend to be a resistance leader together make his story credible.

As for the underground’s structure and methods, the man confirms what is already known: The resistance is highly decentralized and kept that way by fear of spies and lack of secure communications. He adds that his group “believes in the ideology of the Baath Party and of Islam” and that it is loyal to Saddam, though it did not take orders from him. When asked how Saddam’s capture will affect their war, he says: “We will keep fighting. Our goals are clear.”

He adds that his group “has many eyes working inside the police and in the new Iraqi Army.” When I ask about new American methods for jamming the frequencies used to trigger IEDs, he says, “We have our engineers; they use the remote-controls of car-door locks and garage door openers and other devices.” He says they are constantly finding ways to foil the American military’s technology. In light of the recent decline in IEDs, this last bit sounds like bluster.

Ultimately, the meeting leaves the impression of a resistance that is ideologically and organizationally fragmented, with tactics and tools but no clear strategy. The fighters seem to be less a movement than a collection of shamed and angry men with access to military training, weapons and targets.

And the masked man’s allegiance to Saddam is not particularly surprising. Some reports in the Western press have portrayed the resistance as anti-Saddam nationalists, contradicting Donald Rumsfeld’s assertions that they are “dead enders,” loyal to the vanquished regime. But among the fighters and resistance supporters and Sunni in general I talked with, the former dictator is actually quite popular. This phenomenon may be difficult to explain, given Saddam’s atrocities, but it is real.

One former Fedayeen fighter I interviewed loves Saddam Hussein despite having been jailed for a month and severely tortured by his police. Now this man is largely apolitical but he supports the resistance in principle (a family member was active but is now jailed, and other kin have stored weapons for the underground). When Saddam was captured the former torture victim wept openly, and in conversation he will defend the ex-dictator to the end.

An hour outside of Baghdad lies the city of al Falluja–a k a “the wild west.” This heavily Sunni desert region is one of Iraq’s most religious and culturally traditional areas. Here, Iraq’s large clans exercise considerable power. This is also one of the very worst places to be a US soldier. IEDs and mortar attacks are common, and in the first two weeks of January, guerrillas near Falluja shot down three helicopters.

A series of American units have cycled through Falluja, but since September the city has been the responsibility of a battalion from the elite 82nd Airborne. To see their counterinsurgency methods up close, I have “embedded” at forward operating base Volturno. Known informally among the troops as “camp dreamland,” the base was once a middle-class resort. Its little bungalows are now sandbagged barracks, and the artificial lake is half empty but still visited by exotic birds. Not all of the soldiers’ time is spent lakeside, however; they also take frequent trips to town.

It’s a cool late afternoon, and “Operation Dozer”–a large-scale incursion into Falluja–is taking longer than expected, much longer.

“Man, this is turning into a cluster fuck,” quips one of the paratroopers. Instead of lasting two or three hours, Dozer has lasted all day. And when the 82nd Airborne spends any extended period of time in Falluja, they get attacked.

The mission is to search houses and bulldoze roadside guardrails and other obstacles used to hide IEDs. Alpha Company has ridden to the edge of town in Humvees that look like sturdy, open-bed pick-up trucks. To stop bullets and shrapnel, the troops have welded thick metal sheets of Amox plating to the sides of truck beds. When that’s unavailable they use sandbags and hang extra flak vests over the doors.

At the edge of Falluja the paratroopers dismount and fan out across the trash-strewn desert looking for booby traps, then sweep over the barren embankment of an elevated highway and down into the city. Overhead, two Kiowa choppers skim the rooftops looking for snipers.

Shortly after the 82nd arrived here in September, an IED killed one of its sergeants and wounded seven others, including a thoughtful 25-year-old lieutenant and platoon leader named Matt Bacik. Shrapnel caught Bacik in the side of his buttocks, exited through his right thigh, just missed his testicles and then ripped into his left thigh.

As the somewhat bashful Bacik explains, “I really don’t know why my stuff is still there.” He pauses. “The holes just don’t line up.” After two weeks in the hospital the young officer was back at Volturno and within a month back leading missions.

During Operation Dozer I am shadowing Bacik, who is in charge of Alpha Company’s second platoon. At times I also follow one of his squads, led by the self-effacing and good-natured Staff Sgt. Chris Corcione.

After searching houses all morning, Bacik and another platoon leader from Alpha Company have moved up to “phase line dagger” and are about to cordon off and search more houses. They’re briefing a superior on their progress when all of a sudden we hear two or three loud explosions, someone yells “RPG!” and the air fills with gunfire.

Bacik is running, sprinting as best he can under the weight of a flak vest, ammo and other gear. His young radio operator runs after him. The guns are still snapping away, the assault coming from several directions at once. Bacik rounds a corner and heads onto a narrow side street to link up with his most forward squad, which is closest to the explosions.

“Two-two move up, get those trucks out of the alley,” Bacik says to the sergeant in charge of second squad, second platoon. We are a block from where the RPGs hit. When word comes in that some of the shots might have originated from an empty school, Bacik and Corcione’s squad move to “search and clear.”

Crossing a wide empty lot toward the school, an amplified and fiercely impassioned sermon belts out from the tower of a nearby mosque. If this were a movie the scene would reek of cliché. In Falluja there is almost always some lilting Arabic verse floating in the air, like eerie mood music. And now, during this high-noon-style walk across dusty open ground, some unseen imam is yelling wildly in a language few of the paratroopers understand.

“What the fuck is he saying?” someone asks nervously.

“Oh, you know, ‘Kill the infidel Americans, they’re over here by the school,'” deadpans Corcione. The school is cleared room by room, doors kicked in, locks sawed off, two stories and the roof searched. No RPGs and no brass shell casings from AK-47 rounds, and no one hiding out. It’s back to phase line dagger to search more houses.

During these searches, the paratroopers are not unduly aggressive, but as in the school, they often damage property, and it is clear that the people, particularly the women and children, are humiliated and scared. As one soldier–who not unlike the people of Falluja is deeply religious–admits: “There’s no nice way to search someone’s house. I think about how if we did this in eastern Tennessee, where I am from, they’d just as soon shoot you as look at you.”

Then it happens again, the rapid bomb-bomb-bomb of several RPGs and more small-arms fire. This time an armor-piercing RPG has hit one of the few tanklike Bradleys on the mission and destroyed its engine, but no one is hurt.

Again Bacik, along with his company commander, Capt. Terence Caliguire, and two squads, moves forward. Someone is seen dashing across rooftops. He’s trapped. The paratroopers storm in and arrest the shooter, a kid of about 18. For good measure they also round up three men in the house from which the kid fired. Bound and hooded, these guys will likely end up in the vast and terrifying Abu Ghraib prison camp, home to almost 13,000 detainees.

Now it’s really late. Several IDEs have been found and destroyed in huge controlled blasts. The longer we stay in town, the more time the resistance has to set up attacks. The paratroopers pull out of Falluja in slow, orderly stages and then, once on the road, make a high-speed dash back to the safety of FOB Volturno, where the only risks are occasional mortar rounds.

During the meeting to go over Operation Dozer’s after-action report, which is a meeting of all the platoon and squad leaders, the issues discussed are, not surprisingly, all tactical. The very serious and bespectacled Captain Caliguire runs down the list of what worked and what didn’t. Absent from the discussion is the issue of winning over hearts and minds.

“On that front,” explains Caliguire later, “we do our best. We treat people with respect and dignity, but you can’t win them all. Security comes first. Do people resent the house searches? Yes. But my job is to bring security to Falluja and keep my men safe. And there’s not gonna be any reconstruction or NGOs or UN in here if there isn’t security first.”

Relaxing on his cot, Lieutenant Bacik makes similar points. “I do what I am told. If they want me to build a bridge, I’ll do it. But now we have to suppress this resistance. We fight with restraint and discipline and concern for civilians, but this is a war.”

In short, the 82nd is doing what seems to work best for its specific purposes–“search and attack.” That means arresting and killing the underground and its supporters. They use cordon search operations, undercover Special Forces, local spies and information extracted from detainees–who, by the Pentagon’s own admission, are subject to psychological torture such as isolation and prolonged sleep deprivation. With its intelligence, the 82nd launches continuous lightning raids in and out of Falluja.

As for the delicate task of winning the people’s loyalty, that is up to the civilian-run Coalition Provisional Authority, which so far can’t seem to provide jobs, fix the electricity, clean up the garbage or get the oil flowing. In the meantime, the war in Falluja is far from over.

Elsewhere in Iraq, one can find less precise US tactics that at times look like Israeli-style collective punishment. In Samarra I meet the newly arrived Stryker Brigade, named after the unit’s special new armored personnel carriers that have high wheels and elaborate medieval looking metal grilles skirting their sides. The cagelike grilles are designed to catch and thus minimize the blast impact of RPGs.

Only three weeks “in country” and the Strykers have lost five guys and two vehicles. One of the nervous GIs, in the middle of a big cordon search operation, confirms what people in Samarra have been saying: Not far away the resistance knocked out a Stryker with a mine. In response, the Stryker Brigade destroyed two homes with bulldozers.

On the southern edge of Baghdad, under a date palm canopy and among the misty winter fields of al-Doura, a town known for its resistance activity, a farmer named Abdel gives a tour of his crop beds. Poking up from the brown stalks are between fifteen and twenty clean, white, unexploded US mortars. One local told a journalist that the military said the mortars would be removed when the farmers handed over resistance fighters. “How I am going to plant these fields?” asks Abdel.

North of Baghdad, not far from the town of Balad, lies the village of Abu Hishma, on a flat plain above a wide bend in the Tigris River. For the last two months, this hamlet of 7,000 has been totally surrounded by razor wire.

After a series of resistance attacks, one of which killed a GI, the local US commander, Lieut. Col. Nathan Sassaman, sealed the village and threatened to deport the residents to a resettlement camp further east if the violence continued. Now the people of Abu Hishma carry special identification cards and abide by a dusk-to-dawn curfew. On top of that, the colonel forced 126 community leaders, family sheiks and less powerful mukhtars, to sign a contract promising that each signatory will submit to incarceration if there is any resistance activity in the neighborhoods under their responsibility.

At the village gate, the mood is one of defeat. “They treat us like Palestinians,” complains a farmer, then adds in English: “Sassaman–Ariel Sharon number one.” Several Iraqi police are standing nearby but instead of trying to shut down the criticism, join in. “They treat us like dirt. We just take orders from the Americans. The whole thing is ridiculous.” Then, breaking into laughter, the cop adds, “Our chief of police is in jail in Balad right now!”

Another razor-wire-surrounded village is Saddam’s hometown, Awja, further north near Tikrit. Since the triple layer of wire went up and the residents started carrying new IDs, guerrilla activity has dropped off dramatically.

“Any hajji comes near the wire we shoot ’em. One of our scouts has like fifty-five confirmed kills,” explains specialist Keltner, a soldier with the 22nd Infantry who is guarding the checkpoint at the village entrance.

Inside Awja all is quiet, and the few people around seem meek and resigned, but as we leave, the troops at the gate uncover a cache of RPGs. “Fucking Mortar Man!” says a GI, referring to a lone resistance fighter who still plagues them. “This was right on the other side of the berm. They were gonna hit the guard shack,” explains the excited soldier.

To find out what the rural resistance thinks of these tactics I visit a farm on the muddy flood plains near Balad. My translator and I are here to meet a group of former–or momentarily retired–resistance fighters. They are farmers, all brothers and devout, ritualistic Sufis.

Sitting on the floor of a cold farmhouse waiting for a lunch of fried chicken, rice and soup, one young man explains: “My brothers and I did many operations against the Americans, but it is dangerous to talk about this. We spent a lot of money on remote controls.”

In these tightly knit villages, the resistance seems to be even more informally structured than the networked cells described in Adhamiya. “Sometimes a group of brothers or cousins will do an action,” explains the man. “Or maybe someone from Abu Hishma might ask you to help with an action. You’ll go to a field and you will find, maybe, some of your friends and maybe other people you don’t know.” He says that fear and disparate beliefs have kept this network of overlapping “cells” from uniting.

According to this young farmer and his brothers, the guerrillas all have different reasons for fighting. Some fight for Islam, some for Saddam, some just to get the Americans out and some for revenge. These young men seem to have fought for all of the above: They lost their father to an American bomb, they feel humiliated by the occupation, they are intensely religious and a few of them really like Saddam but are not in the Baath Party.

So why have they stopped their attacks in the last few weeks? The man doing most of the talking thinks for a bit, and then, revealing the deep war weariness of many Iraqis, says, “It’s hard to fight and kill other people.” He adds, “The Americans are very brutal, they are monsters. They have killed whole families and arrested a quarter of the men in this area.”

As if on cue, two deafeningly loud Apache helicopter gunships sweep low over the farm. “Last night they were shooting at the other bank of the river,” says one of the men.

Just before lunch is served and the political talk winds down, the former guerrilla concludes, “Perhaps the resistance is just resting, waiting to see what the Americans will do next.”

Back in Baghdad, it is clear that while some in the underground may be giving up, the war is still in full effect. Three truckers working for the Coalition Provisional Authority have been shot and one killed. At my hotel, a colleague mentions that an Arab TV crew from Reuters was almost killed by the resistance, who accused the reporters of collaborating with the Americans. Fast talking and perhaps a little help from Allah got the journalists home safely.

A week or so later another huge car bomb goes off at the aptly named “Assassins’ Gate,” one of the main entrances to the coalition’s fortressed “Green Zone.” Racing through a gloomy morning of thick, chilled smog, a friend and I get to the blast area just as American troops are pushing back the first wave of reporters. The bomb has killed more than twenty and wounded sixty. It is the usual hellish scene of gore and wreckage. Whatever party, or cell, set off the bomb has released no statement, made no demands. But the brutal semiotics of the casualties are clear: In addition to three US soldiers and three American contractors, the dead and wounded are all Iraqis who, whether as maids or managers, worked with the coalition.

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